Melbourne’s pivot towards al fresco dining has been fast and far-reaching. So, when you’ve got one of the most generously sized outdoor-dining spaces in the CBD, the only option is to make the most out of all 600 square metres of it.
That’s what drove Nick Kutcher and his team to transform the courtyard outside Pepe’s Italian & Liquor – his moody, Italo-American diner in a heritage-listed former synagogue – into a bustling Italian piazza.
“With no one allowed to travel for the [foreseeable future], we just thought we really needed to bring an Italian experience to the CBD,” he tells Broadsheet. “We’ve got such a large … outdoor area in the city, so we wanted to make a couple of different offerings that had some roots in Italy.”
While the courtyard Pepe’s shares with Trunk Diner (which is reopening in 2021) has always had outside seating, the capacity has been ramped up significantly. From November 22, there’ll be space for 220 punters across three indoor dining rooms (including a private one), and three distinct outdoor areas to suit different moods.
The Garden Lounge is an homage to aperitivo hours whiled away in Milan or Lake Como. There’s an abundance of greenery, group seating for up to 10, a summery spritz station (with bubbly limoncello, and a fruity number with apples and elderflower), self-service cocktail towers in four varieties (yes, including Aperol Spritz), and a bocce court for the full Italian experience.
There’s also the Terrace, a back courtyard that’s been excavated and renovated to become an intimate, cosy trattoria. “[It’s] designed to be a little more romantic,” Kutcher says. “It’s under the vines with some fairy lights and some nice table lighting.”
In the beer garden, it’s a no-bookings situation so the space is kept open for walk-ins looking for a casual afternoon drink or two.
Another addition to Pepe’s is a striped yellow gelati cart courtesy of star Melbourne chef Adam D’Sylva (Coda and Tonka). Boca Gelato is his newest venture, and it’s popping up here for the duration of summer. Expect flavours such as chai, almond with croccante (an Italian-style nut brittle), and bacio (chocolate and roasted hazelnut). Plus, tangy lemon-and-elderflower, and coconut, sorbet.
The seasonally driven menu retains crowd favourites from the last year (since Pepe’s replaced Trunk Bar and Restaurant), including clams casino with guanciale and garlic butter; spicy rigatoni with vodka-tomato sauce and Calabrian chilli; super-sized veal parmigianas for two; and pizzas topped with meatballs, porchetta, mushrooms and more.
And while Pepe’s is meant to transport you to an Italian summer, Kutcher’s vision for the piazza is pretty universal: “Summer nights that seem to go on forever – the perfect temperature, good drinks, great share plates of food, aperitivo, nice music.”
Pepe’s Italian & Liquor is open daily from noon until late. Book online or by calling (03) 9663 7994.